There were signs, but I chose to ignore them. I thought it would be best.
I reasoned that, instead of seeing the truth, I was seeing what I imagined or hoped the truth would be. She’d say something to me, or I’d overhear something as I walked by an office or into a room, and I’d do my best to pretend not to notice. I’m sure that didn’t mean what it sounded like it meant. And besides, where I was working at the time, I was under enough scrutiny as it was. If word got around (and it would have — our office space wasn’t all that big) I feared it would make life difficult for us both. I knew I didn’t want the extra attention, and I certainly didn’t want to drag her down with me, either. So my thinking was this: Just because you’re attracted to one of your coworkers doesn’t mean you have to pursue her.
And then, at the same time, the other side of my brain was saying, You’re going to be a complete dumbass and drop the ball again, aren’t you? Yeah, I thought so.
For about a week stretch, I dreamed up excuses to stay late because I knew she was staying late and would need help carrying boxes of books to her car. It was an opportunity to carry heavy things for her and lie about how heavy the books were, as well as a chance to get close enough for our hands to touch once or twice as we lowered the boxes into her trunk.
For a good part of another week, I was her ride to and from work while her car was in the shop (unrelated to the staggering weight of the boxes in her trunk, I believe, though I could be wrong.) Obviously, I had no choice but to wait for her to be ready to go home at the end of the day, but by that time I had become quite adept at looking busy. Chauffeuring her around earned me a homemade pumpkin muffin one morning that week, which I ate with gusto in my tiny cubicle while recalling a factoid in a back issue of the magazine we produced about natural aphrodisiacs and the aromas men found the most, um, _exciting_.
A few days before February 14 that year, she came to visit me in my cubicle and asked to borrow my phone book. I expected her to take the Yellow Pages with her and bring them back when she was finished with them, but instead she let her fingers do the walking right there at my desk, picked up my phone, dialed and proceeded to make dinner reservations for four on Valentine’s Day. She must have noticed me looking at her quizzically, but after she got off the phone, she went back upstairs without a word and I was left alone to wonder what the hell had just happened. What, if anything, was I meant to take away from that brief encounter?
Just to confuse things even further, when Valentine’s Day rolled around, she ducked her head into my cubicle once more and asked me if I had lunch plans. While eating my one requisite vegetarian meal of the week, I asked the question I had been carefully crafting all week — whether those dinner reservations she made were for a Valentine’s Day dinner or just an ordinary Wednesday night dinner. It was just a meal out with dateless friends, she assured me, but was that how I was supposed to classify lunch with her that day, too? Of course, I didn’t ask.
There were other little incidents along the way that I was quick to convince myself weren’t nearly as profound as they first seemed to be. Stopping by my cubicle to chat, her crossed arms resting on one of the cube walls and her head in her hands — that absolutely slayed me every time. Whispered conversations in the hallway outside our offices, griping about orders from this or that editor. Walking by the office kitchen after lunch one day and overhearing her utter an exquisite Freudian slip that made my week.
She was an important ally, too, when management began to force me out of my position there, reducing my workload and replacing some of my duties with fairly menial tasks. She backed me up, assuring me my grievances were justified and that she didn’t think I was merely complaining for the sake of complaining. And on the afternoon I was eventually fired from that position, she was the first person I contacted, just to make sure that a coworker I trusted and someone whose opinion I valued would have my side of the story, warts and all.
When she eventually called me about a month later to catch up and apologize for taking so long to get back to me, I told her I hoped we’d stay in touch. I absolutely meant it, too. Now unencumbered by the complexities inherent in keeping an office romance under wraps, things were surely going to take off, I theorized. But I constantly avoided calling her, convinced I was imagining things and that she couldn’t possibly be interested in me. Other pressing issues such as trying to find a new job took up more and more of my time and, before I knew it, one year had passed.
I saw her picture in a local paper a few weeks ago — a group photo of some of the editorial staff of one of the magazines I worked for alongside an article about how the magazines will soon be picking up shop and moving to the West Coast. It had been a while since I’d felt some regret about possibly letting a wonderful opportunity slip through my fingers, but seeing her in the photo and instantly recognizing the walls of my old cubicle behind her, I’m kicking myself all over again.